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Still without weed in Arkansas 

But it looks like medical marijuana will finally roll in.

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A fractious two years after Arkansas voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution allowing medical marijuana, there is still no healing bud to be had in Arkansas. But, with luck and no litigation, it looks like the first cannabis will be ready by late April for sale to medical marijuana dispensaries, and dispensaries will be open to receive and sell the product.

Cultivator Bold Team LLC of Cotton Plant — the best thing to happen to that town in years — was the first out of the cultivator chute, finishing its facility, getting it licensed and beginning in the first week of January to grow Arkansas's first legal marijuana. By the beginning of February, Bold Team said, its 600-plus plants would be 2-foot-tall adolescents.

Like Bold Team, Natural State Medicinals outside Pine Bluff also predicts to be able to put medical marijuana on the market by April, though it has not yet finished plant construction.

It wasn't easy getting to this point. The Medical Marijuana Commission, appointed in December 2016, took months to complete its rulemaking, set fees and design applications. Its five members decided to read and score the 322 applications for grower licenses, starting in September 2017, themselves, a process that took five months. The announcement of the top five cultivator awards in February 2018 was met the following month with complaints to state Alcohol Beverage Control, the commission's enforcement arm, and a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court. The lawsuit stalled licensing for another five months.

The delay was an irritant to people waiting for legal marijuana guaranteed by Amendment 98, and allegations of conflicts of interest among commissioners and scoring irregularities tainted the process.

Among the many scoring controversies: Commissioner Dr. Carlos Roman, who is no longer on the commission, scored another doctor's application 30 points higher than he did any of the other top five applicants. In a bizarre turn of events, Natural State Agronomics owner Ken Shollmier secretly taped Roman to see if Roman would solicit a bribe. Roman, in turn, complained to the state attorney general's office that someone had tried to bribe him. The lawsuit, filed by losing cultivator Naturalis Health, sought a rescoring by an independent party, noting that Commissioner Travis Story had given his second highest score to Osage Creek Cultivation LLC, owned by the Trulove family of Berryville, a client of Story's. Naturalis also noted that commission Chairwoman Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman had simply checked off answers in one section rather than giving numerical scores; the ABC commissioner at the time, Mary Robin Casteel, asked Henry-Tillman to provide scores, which she did.

The controversies gave a certain odor to the award process, which the commission sought to dispel by hiring a consultant to review the applications for dispensary licenses and removing themselves from the process. Even that did not go smoothly; one applicant had to fight its disqualification, and was eventually allowed to submit. Nine applications were sent to the scoring team of the Public Consulting Group without their attachments. At least one losing dispensary has suggested a lawsuit may be in the offing over what it said was indefensible scoring.

Danny Brown of Bold Team, who is also the owner of Willy D's Piano Bar, said he and a friend were duck hunting when they decided to get into the marijuana cultivation business. The two went to Denver, Colo., to study up. By choosing Cotton Plant for the facility, the company got extra points and a warm reception from the then-mayor, Willard Ryland.

Bold Team hopes to harvest 635 plants to produce 200 pounds of product a week, Brown said. The company, which will also process the cannabis, will wait for dispensaries to give it direction on what form they'd like the product to take, such as flowers, edibles or vape pens. He said Bold Team is growing "roughly" 15 strains, chosen on the advice of consultants based on the qualifying conditions for buyer cards.

After a plant's flowers mature — which happens all at once, Brown said — the plant is destroyed. Bold Team will grow new plants from clones.

Bold Team has nine employees now, but hopes to employ 25, he said. It held a job fair a few months ago, raising the hopes of out-of-work locals. The company has pledged 1 percent of its gross revenues every year to the town, which Brown estimates will come to about $100,000 — four times the budget of Cotton Plant, he said.

That would put gross at $10 million.

Brown said he would encourage people to get their medical marijuana cards from the Arkansas Department of Health now. "A lot of people are waiting to get cards until the product is available, and if they wait, it's going to take them months" to get the cards because of the processing backlog, he said.

The more cards, the more sales.

The health department reported that as of Jan. 10, 6,764 Arkansans had been approved to receive medical marijuana ID cards. It also announced it expected to issue the first cards in mid-February.

Licensed cultivators were called to the marijuana commission in November 2018 to report on their progress. Bold Team said its facility would be complete by the end of December, and it was. The representative for Osage Creek Cultivation in Carroll County, which was expected to pass inspection by the end of January, said it would finish construction around March 1 and likely have product 90 days later, by June 1.

Joe Courtright, CEO of Natural State Medicinals of Jefferson County, came equipped with handouts and maps. Courtright said litigation and rainfall had slowed construction and its greenhouse had not yet been delivered, but he still hoped to have product available by April. He predicted there would be 12,000 cardholders by the end of 2019.

At the November meeting, Jonesboro lawyer Don Parker, representing Delta Medical Cannabis Co. of Newport, said building materials and HVAC units had been ordered and predicted construction would be complete in five months once dirt was turned. Delta's products — which he said would include extracts, lotions, tinctures and oils for cooking — should be ready for sale by July or August. He expects the number of cardholders to reach 20,000 in the first year products are available.

Parker also said construction cost was double the original estimate, but the company had "financial strength and resources" to handle it.

In January, Delta Medical got the commission's approval to move its facility to a site one and half miles from its original location after there were complaints that it was too near a school — Arkansas State University's Newport campus. Parker said it was a "no brainer" to move rather than wait for the commission or a court to decide on whether ASU was a "school." Delta Medical broke ground Jan. 15.

Parker told the Times in January that construction would proceed in "rain, snow and ice," if necessary, and "probably" take six months, with a harvest three months after that, which would push product availability into September.

Warren Ross of Harvest, the company contracted by Natural State Wellness Enterprises for both its cultivator and dispensary licenses, reported in November the company's facility — like Delta Medical, also in Newport — should be open in the "second quarter" of 2019. He said Natural State would "phase in" its propagation while completing construction, and could start growing by April. Ross said Natural State would grow 25 strains of Cannabis indica and sativa and produce products with a varied balance of THC, the intoxicating element of cannabis, and CBD, or the less intoxicating cannabidiol, which some research says is effective in treating pediatric seizures.

The commission gave Ross somewhat of a hard time; Roman told him that cancer patients "don't have a lot of time" to wait for medical marijuana (though he added that the "medical data is all over the place" on marijuana's medicinal qualities).

In an interview in January, Harvest representative Ben Kimbro said structural steel had been ordered and foundation work was about to begin. "I think we're fully operational in June," with product available in late summer. "Hopefully, we don't see the same delays with litigation" over dispensary licensing, he added.

ABC is sending enforcement agents to cultivators who have not yet opened with a "pre-inspection" checklist to make sure they know what they'll need to do to be permitted by the ABC, enforcement director Boyce Hamlet said. "We're trying to speed this up."

"The state in general has taken a lot of negative criticism for dragging its feet. Enforcement is not dragging its feet. We're going to do everything we can to get [facilities] up and running."

Complaints alleging false reporting on winning cultivator applications are still pending before the ABC, Hamlet said. They include two by River Valley Relief Cultivation of Fort Smith, which was unsuccessful in winning a license. River Valley Relief accuses Natural State Medicinals of providing false information to the commission on the residency of principal Robert DeBin, who River Valley Relief says did not live in Arkansas for seven consecutive years before the application, as required under the law. River Valley also complained that Delta Medical Cannabis Co. falsely represented its "operations specialist" as the owner and operator of a medical marijuana business in Colorado. However, the expert had not been licensed for two years at the time of the application, River Valley reported.

The Colorado Department of Revenue licensed the specialist, Jeff Botkin, three days before River Valley's complaint was filed with the commission. ♦

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